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The Real Harlem

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Camilo José Vergara
One of Vergara’s later photographs of 319 West 125th Street, from 1996, when a Korean toy store occupied the spot formerly held by the Baby Grand. It was later taken over by a Radio Shack.

Richard Rodgers, the theater composer, grew up on 122nd Street and Mount Morris Park when it was known as “Doctor’s Row.” In 1939, some members of the neighborhood association were urging Jewish physicians not to sell their practices to “negroes.” But they did. In the 1960s, the Rodgers family donated an amphitheater to the park, which was renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973. Longtime residents can remember when Malcolm X was Detroit Red and lived on the south side of the park, as would Maya Angelou much later. Recently, Marcus Samuelsson, the celebrated Ethiopian-Swedish chef, has moved in. The Ethiopian co-owner of a nearby Sicilian restaurant pointed out that Harlem had been a mostly white neighborhood for only a short time, between the late nineteenth century and World War I. But actually, what we think of as Harlem was not overwhelmingly black until after World War II.

Vergara has witnessed African American Day parades over the years. He relates to Harlem as a community of the poor. Its history is on his mind, and so, too, are his illustrious predecessors, photographers in Harlem, including Helen Levitt and her “surreptitious picture taking,” a tradition in which he places himself and his unnoticed cable-released digital SLR camera. Vergara has photographed the old black women in their church hats, pastors, a street evangelist, the new African immigrants, the evicted, the addicts, newly released prisoners, the homeless, cooks, video salesmen, liquor store customers, corner basketball players, a Chinese woman selling pet turtles, police arresting a black woman in front of Samuelsson’s restaurant, the Red Rooster, and of course subway riders. Yet as sympathetic as his portraits are, of the 269 photographs in his book those of the physical place hold the chief interest.

Vergara sometimes returns to the same address—319 West 125th Street in 1977, 1996, and 2007, in the course of which the Baby Grand bar turns into Radio Shack (see illustrations on pages 52 and 54); or seventeen photographs of 65 East 125th Street, taken between 1977 and 2011, documenting its transformation from a bar to a fish-and-chips joint, a dubious smoke shop, a mattress store, and then a storefront church. “In my frequent visits to this site over the years,” Vergara says in an accompanying essay, “I was often confronted and ordered to stop photographing lest I be punched and have my camera broken. An advantage of the business changing so frequently was that the new owners did not recognize me.” Vergara, who has photographed minority communities in other cities—see The New American Ghetto (1995)—always intended to make a visual record of Harlem, but it eventually became clear to him that he was also capturing “the end of an urban era,” showing “how cities declined and how residents and city officials tried to stop it.”

One section of the book, “Harlem’s Walls,” includes photographs of the murals devoted to black history, memorial portraits on brick walls, and those paintings that could be called the equivalents of outsider or naive art. Several such murals are still visible on shop gratings after business hours along West 125th Street near the former Hotel Theresa. Tourists stop and take pictures with their smart phones. They are symbols of another time, of an earlier style of black pride, as was the Theresa when it finally became black-owned in 1937. Shutters installed more recently are made of bars or screens, surfaces that can’t be painted on.

Vergara responds to the homemade signs over barbershops and nail salons, over local hamburger palaces and funeral homes, paintings on vegetable markets and shut-up businesses plastered with layers of posters—the commerce of the inner city. The remnants of this kind of street life are even more exotic when compared to most Manhattan neighborhoods, as the city becomes what many complain of as being homogenized. Some Harlem residents don’t want where they live to lose its distinct look and feel. They mind that progress in Harlem is now measured in the number of lively new bistros and retro diners. Part of what can seem like a sanitizing process is that Harlem’s black history is now a heritage tour. Hardly anyone pays attention to the old-style black nationalists on Harlem’s streets haranguing passersby on weekends, while European tourists—Vergara does not neglect to include shots of them—line up around the block to gain entrance not to the Apollo but to gospel services at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

The photograph, like the written word, as Sara Blair points out in her study Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century (2007), helped to turn Harlem into “a poetic resource,” representative of the “iconic images” of black poverty and despair. Authentic Harlem for many people retains living connections to black history, not the remote Jazz Age, but the politicized ghetto that Castro visited, where James Brown used to play, and black people told truth to power, from Malcolm X to Al Sharpton.

This history as a capital of black struggle has more dignity than the upbeat blackness that the mainstream seems to ask of entrepreneurs. While many regard Harlem’s look as what the poor have had to put up with, they, like Vergara, know that the luxury housing supposedly now on offer in Harlem is certainly not that when compared to what luxury in the rest of the city means:

In its moral and economic implications, the twenty-first-century vision of commercial developers breaks radically with the past. The neighborhood offers green technology, modern design, space, adventure, and consumerism in an ethnically and racially mixed middle-class community.
Segregated old Harlem, the capital of black America, was a unique place where blacks could realize their potential. Multicultural Harlem offers those who can afford it an open neighborhood in which to live well, to enjoy diversity, and to live right.

Check-cashing spots, methadone clinics, and housing projects are not a part of that twenty-first-century vision, Vergara notes. Yet the new architecture is not distinguished and neither is the public sculpture closely associated with it.

Vergara’s photographs remind us that public housing in Harlem is extensive, from West 116th Street to West 145th Street, though several of the towers have been turned into co-ops. East Harlem has large brick boxes, some of them public housing, all over the place. Squad cars, mobile watchtowers, and black, white, and Latino patrolmen and patrolwomen are visible on many corners. In the days of Bloomberg, late at night, you could pass very silent stop-and-frisk scenes in front of apartment entrances and up against brick walls, young black men with their legs spread, kept waiting.

Not every white person in Harlem is a home owner. Many are hipsters or young people who are not afraid of black neighborhoods and want to live someplace relatively cheap. Among those couples with young children who have moved into Harlem’s most desirable addresses are integrated straight couples with mixed-race children and integrated gay couples with mixed-race children. They, like Francophone Africans, have found a neighborhood where they fit in. “Damn fags,” you can hear at the subway stops—and not from an aggressive hip-hop kid with his trousers down around his nuts, but some relic of black separatism, a gray-haired Rasta.

Before, when even the landlady was black and not much better off than you, you could be poor in the privacy of your own home, stores, dentists’ offices. When white people who were better off started moving in, they exposed how badly off you really were. Harlem was not where they had ended up or had always been, it was what they had chosen, a new possibility. Real estate is not related to the integration of black culture into the American mainstream, but the changes in Harlem do coincide with historical changes having to do with race in America. For the first time in US history, more poor people live in the suburbs than in the cities, making income inequality a block-by-block story in many shared urban spaces. White and black kids in new fashions thread their way among an older, unhealthy black population on canes, on walkers, diabetic amputees in wheelchairs.

Harlem is shrinking as it gets divided up for marketing purposes. North of Morningside Heights, Columbia University’s dramatic campus expansion fills the valley that used to be Manhattanville. Ralph Ellison is still fondly remembered in the apartment building on Riverside Drive and West 145th Street where he lived for almost fifty years. In his time, his address was generic west Harlem, but it’s now better known as Hamilton Heights. Back down at 110th Street, Morningside Park used to be the Columbia border, a cliff that marked the boundary between the safety of Morningside Heights and the perils of sociology textbooks come to life below. But these days, once-notorious drug blocks feature cafés and various establishments meant to appeal to students. Not far away, on 116th Street, a new Little Africa blossoms, the air thick with French and baking bread.

Harlem was his Left Bank, Ellison said. When he hit town in 1938, he was taken up by a group of black gay friends that included the philosopher Alain Locke, the poet Langston Hughes, and the sculptor Richmond Barthé. Instead of looking at new residents as invaders, perhaps they should be seen in Harlem’s cosmopolitan tradition. They know Harlem’s history and are just as proud to be there. It is not their fault that the storefront churches in Harlem are disappearing. Vergara says that Harlem lives at night, but 125th Street now closes up early for the most part, like Houston, Canal, or any crosstown street of mostly retail shops. The chic crowds that turn out for exhibitions at Thelma Golden’s Studio Museum of Harlem include many people who also jam Khalil Muhammad’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—part of the New York Public Library—to hear Dr. Muhammad talk with Michelle Alexander about the need for radical political change. These institutions are among the few places in Harlem that can draw audiences from elsewhere in the city in the evenings.

But Harlem is no longer isolated from the rest of Manhattan. Its property revival has extended its past by opening up the history of its architecture. Michael Henry Adams’s Harlem: Lost and Found (2001) delights in exploring the last colonial house, the surviving baronial mansions, the row houses that replaced mansions as Harlem became middle-class and the apartment houses that then were built instead of row houses. Vergara also photographs the tranquil federal houses of Astor Row as well as the harmonious façade of Strivers’ Row built by McKim, Mead, and White.

What has happened uptown is a process ongoing all over town and some veterans of 1960s jazz and 1970s New Wave in the East Village are as bitter against the manifest destiny of NYU as old heads in Harlem are against trendy whites. Incense and marijuana waft down Harlem’s side streets in the middle of the afternoon, but whose weed is it? Jane Jacobs was right about so much in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), but even for her, change comes with the dollar. On July 20, 1921, The New York Times ran a story about the United Cigar Stores Company leasing the property at 125th and Lenox—once the Eisleben Apartments—to a syndicate. “The new lessees contemplate razing the old building and improving the site with a large business building, possibly with a theater on the 124th street end.”

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